Is This The Best Female Collegiate Sailor, Ever?

Is This The Greatest Female Collegiate Sailor Ever?

 Stanford’s Michelle Lahrkamp has busted through the glass ceiling. In the process, she’s accomplished what no other woman has in college sailing. Including beating the men straight-up on the same playing field. All while wearing Tajima prescription polarized lenses full time – for an advantage. Tajima Direct co-founder, and former Stanford teammate Jacob Rosenberg sat down with the graduating senior to discuss her trailblazing achievements, lessons learned along this journey, sailing with her sister Vanessa for two years at Stanford, and what it means to be a leader and leave a legacy behind.  And … what lies ahead for this amazing young woman!

JR:  You've had an incredible college sailing career with a wide range of accomplishments – that includes being the first (and only) freshman to win Women's College Sailor of the Year, winning back-to-back Women's National Championships, being the first (and only) woman to win A-Division at the Open Co-Ed National Championship, the first (and only) all-women’s team to win the Open Co-Ed National Championship (the pinnacle championship in collegiate sailing), being an 8x College Sailing All American…and so much more!!  Is there a certain accomplishment that you’re most proud of, and why?

ML:  Winning the Open Fleet Race (open co-ed national championship) was the most surreal accomplishment. It was a testament to our dominance as a Women’s Team and the first time I solidified how supportive the women’s sailing community is. We had people from other teams, parents, and alumni invested in Stanford Sailing’s success as we symbolized women’s representation in the Open Fleet Race. To make college sailing history alongside my teammates and coaches is something I’ll never forget and a feeling that is so unique as our success rippled throughout the sailing community. It was a historic accomplishment and an opportunity for us to showcase sailing to the greater athlete community that sailing truly is an equalizer sport. Even a year later, I received messages from Stanford professors and administrators who read our story Winds of Change on GoStanford that encapsulate and relive that experience. Most recently, a faculty member reached out to me and shared my story with her daughter who participates in rock climbing, which inspired her to continue to dream big in her open competitions in her sport. Our success ripples beyond the sailing world and inspires young female athletes to dream big, a legacy I’m honored to leave on college sailing and the greater female athlete community.

JR: As one of the top collegiate sailors for most of your career, you often raced in the open co-ed events that were predominantly filled with male drivers. Tell me a bit about that experience and how it felt to be one of the few female drivers going head to head with the men.

ML: It’s a bittersweet opportunity to be one of the few female drivers in the open events. The women’s collegiate level has become equally competitive with our speed matching or surpassing the open level. The bitter part is that I know so many competitive and talented women’s collegiate sailors who can succeed on the open level, yet, they are never given that opportunity to start at the open events. The sweet part is that I’m friends with a lot of the male drivers and open crews who see me as equal on the race course, respect my competitive drive, and look up to me as a role model. It’s been a privilege to compete at both women’s and open events as both have taught me different lessons that I was able to apply across both fleets. I’ve been able to make so many friends by competing at both the women’s and open events that will last for a lifetime as sailing truly is a lifelong sport. I’m excited to race with or against them in my future sailing endeavors!

JR: I think it's safe to say you've been an inspiration for other female sailors, and you'll leave a legacy in collegiate sailing as one of the first women to both dominate in the woman's divisions, but also in the open co-ed divisions - simultaneously. How do you hope your accomplishments / legacy will impact the sport going forward? What message do you have for younger girls aspiring to compete in collegiate sailing in the future?

ML: First, I remind myself every day that it is a privilege and honor to leave a legacy and inspire others. I’ve looked up to so many female sailors growing up who inspired me to become a successful sailor. My first Women’s Atlantic Coast Championship (ACCs) at Navy as a freshman was the first time I was racing many of my female skipper idols that I’ve looked up to my whole life. Winning A division at that regatta with Sammy was just the start of my Stanford career – and it unlocked my drive and passion for college sailing.

One thing I’ve learned is that expectations will only disappoint you. Having expectations for results or competitors is a waste of time and energy. When I removed expectations, I realized there was no limit and no barriers for me as long as I worked hard and earned my starting spot. My coaches at Stanford have preached a merit-based team where the best sailors start regardless of gender or academic year. I approached learning with a beginner’s mindset, asked questions, challenged myself, experimented, and stayed humble throughout my college sailing career. These qualities and learnings along the way allowed me to harness a style of mature sailing that is consistent, reliable, and doesn’t crack under pressure. These are the skills and lessons that my legacy leaves behind to my teammates as they see my drive and dedication every day. To my fellow aspiring women’s skippers, never give up. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it just because you’re a woman. Your competitive advantage is being a woman and harnessing that into your sailing style. You got this girl!

Aside from my sailing success, my leadership on the team and in college sailing is a legacy I’m most proud of. During COVID, I met heroes of college sailing who saw an opportunity to make college sailing more accessible. Preston and Mackenzie were my role models who introduced me to ICSA TIDE (Task Force in Inclusion, Diversity, Equity). Their passion was contagious, and I became involved as an undergraduate coordinator helping lead subcommittee projects and coordinating a DEI education program for coaches. Last year I was awarded the Jim Rousmaniere Student Leadership Award in the ICSA Hall of Fame. From the discontinued Stanford Sailing varsity status and then reinstatement, PCCSC undergraduate board, to a leader in TIDE, I took on leadership roles on our steering committee and voted on important conference decisions as well as supporting the TIDE task force. Managing these different roles allowed me to grow and learn as a leader and truly leave a mark on Stanford Sailing as well as the greater college sailing community. Balancing my college sailing goals with giving back to the college sailing community was a rewarding and eye-opening experience that allowed me to inspire others to be more involved with improving and progressing our sports beyond competition.My legacy is only as good as who it inspires. I hope I’ve inspired the next generation of Stanford sailors, women’s skippers, and leaders of the college sailing community.

JR: You won all four of your national championships alongside your sister in the 2 years you overlapped at Stanford. Can you describe what that experience was like for you – and do you think it added to your success for some reason? Did competing together influence your relationship or have an impact on your bond?

ML: Having Vanessa at Stanford and as my teammate for the last two years was a gift that keeps on giving. She’s my built-in best friend, and training partner, and inspires me to be better every day. She and I had immediate chemistry on the water when we were team racing and our communication and feedback in fleet racing allowed us to push each other. Growing up we never compared ourselves to each other. We always shared new insights, ideas, and feedback and cheered each other on. That type of relationship is rare and allows us to support each other as athletes and hold each other to a high standard while celebrating each other’s success. Our bond has only grown stronger over the years at Stanford together. At the 2023 ICSA Nationals, our bond and chemistry were unmatched which allowed us to be consistently successful. This year when Vanessa won the 2024 Quantum Women’s College Sailor of the Year, this was the best possible retirement gift for me as it was the ultimate win for an older sister. It’s rare to have your younger sister share your dreams with you, accomplish those dreams with you, and then become a leader and star after you. I’m so lucky we have so many life and college sailing experiences together, and I’m excited for our next life journey together beyond college sailing.

JR: Most people might not know, but you always wear prescription lenses on the water racing. Clearly, you’ve made decisions to wear Rx as opposed to contacts - how has this impacted your performance on the water?  Why do you prefer prescription lenses over contacts?

ML: Sailing days are super long and having a clear mindset with minimal distractions is key. After 3-4 hours my contacts get dry and irritate me which affects my performance on the race course. When it's breezy and there is a lot of splash, contacts can easily fall out if you get dunked by a wave which I don’t want to have to worry about, so, prescription lenses not only provide protection from the elements, they allow me to focus purely on the boat balance and keeping us upright in windy conditions.

JR: You've now been wearing Tajima Direct prescription polarized lenses exclusively while sailing the past few years. Do you see a difference or advantages on the water, especially with collegiate regattas which are notoriously held in super shifty, dicey and difficult conditions? Have you had a preference in lens color that you’ve preferred at certain times or locations?

ML: Absolutely! I remember when you first started the company when we were on the team together. Full disclosure, I used Oakley deep blue ocean sunglasses before Tajima’s for my first two years of university. At the start of my third year, my Oakley lenses were super scratched and delaminated, so I wanted to try Tajima’s as my teammate Sammy was raving about them when we were sailing together. The key aspects of Tajima’s I noticed were the sharpness in the different water textures and ripples that the Tajima’s allowed me to see, which is essential in reading what pressure is on the course. My lenses are the Copper/Rose 15 Silver Mirror, which are highly optimized for all college sailing conditions from brackish lake and flat water in New Orleans to the big waves and chop in the San Francisco Bay. The lenses work best when it's sunny out as the contrast between glossy and choppy water becomes extremely apparent allowing me to make quick decisions about which breeze is coming and how to strategize most effectively. The customer experience and quick shipping were a huge bonus to the overall lens quality experience!

JR: With your collegiate sailing and academic career coming to a close, what are your plans for the future, both in sailing and beyond?

ML: Sailing has always been a hobby for me and a big part of my identity so I will find ways to get on the water. After graduation, I will be competing in the 2024 Newport to Bermuda Offshore race with my dad. I’ve been trying to do this race for a long time but always had internship conflicts so I’m excited to finally be able to sail it this year. Beyond this summer, I hope to get into the match racing circuit as I’ll be based out of NYC and have access to Oakcliff on weekends. I’m open to trying out the 2v2 keelboat team racing and the Snipe class as well.

Professionally, this summer I will be working in Ghana for 9 weeks through the Stanford Seed Program, Stanford Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies, where I hope to challenge my growth strategy and apply it to a new geographic region while having a positive and tangible impact. This fall, I start my full-time job as a consultant at Bain & Company in New York City. I’m excited to start my professional journey and enter adult sailing competitions.